China is using media, money and more to influence the January 2020 presidential election in Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy that Beijing calls its own, officials and experts on the island assert.
Authorities in Beijing have influenced Taiwan's "grassroots" by enticing tourists, buying advertisements and using the "mafia," the island government's Mainland Affairs Council told VOA in a statement Monday. Some scholars also say the Chinese government pays some Taiwanese media outlets a fee for posting pro-Beijing reports.
"The Chinese Communists are actively intervening in the 2020 elections and that's to violate Taiwan's sovereignty, as well as destroy our democratic system," the statement reads. Council spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng told VOA he wants China to stop.
China has seen Taiwan as part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and has threatened to take it by force if needed. The Chinese government resents incumbent Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen for rejecting its goal of reunification, as well as its dialogue precondition — that each side see itself as part of one China. Tsai took office in 2016, and she's seeking reelection.
Most Taiwanese oppose unification with China, a government opinion survey showed in January. Many also hope for stronger business relations with China, however, given its economic clout.
Tsai's election opponent, Han Kuo-yu, supports opening talks with China to bolster economic and investment ties. Beijing's influence could bolster support for Han before the vote in January, analysts in Taiwan say.
Polls in Taiwan were giving Han, now mayor of the major port city Kaohsiung, support rates of 36% to 48% in July.
"The outcome is clear, the outcome is impact on the January presidential and legislative elections, so I think if there was no Chinese influence, Han Kuo-yu wouldn't be polling so high in surveys," said Michael Tsai, chairman of the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies in Taiwan.
List of suspicions
In May, the president told national security agencies to step up resistance against China because of signs China was trying to gain influence over Taiwan. Tsai told reporters then China was trying to sway elections and wage "fake news" campaigns. China even creates "fake polls" to influence voter sentiment, the Mainland Affairs Council statement says.
Chinese government agencies channel some funding through China-based Taiwanese business people to exert influence, Michael Tsai said.
Last year, the Taiwan government said China was funding "fake news" and opposition-party candidates in local elections throughout Taiwan. The China-friendly Nationalists swept mayoral and county magistrate seats on November 24, ousting the ruling Democratic Progressive Party from many of them.
Suspected media influence
Some Taiwanese media outlets have credited Han for unlikely acts, such as cleaning a whole river, said George Hou, mass communications lecturer at Taiwan-based I-Shou University. Han took office as mayor less than a year ago.
"On the quality side, it's not just all about giving him publicity, but to make him look like a God who can do the impossible," Hou said.
The Chinese government offers "subsidies" to some media outlets for this kind of report and pays some Taiwanese restaurants for showing only pro-China channels to customers, he added.
In Beijing, a spokesman for the government's Taiwan Affairs Office said on July 17 his office was not manipulating Taiwanese media to support an election candidate.
Search for evidence
Any effort to influence the election is likely to be arranged behind closed doors, scholars say, making it hard to link China conclusively with any specific action.
China probably does not directly buy votes or destroy data to sway elections, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
"I think it's too raw and too primitive, and that the Chinese approach is more sophisticated," Sun said. Officials in Beijing may instead use their own media to send messages to Taiwanese and Chinese citizens, including tourists bound for Taiwan, Sun added. "So, what the Chinese do is they use PR," Sun said.
It will be difficult to find a "direct link" implicating China in any election influence, she said.